Thailand’s political temperature is rising following the heated court case of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is accused of mismanaging Thailand’s rice subsidy program. The Supreme Court will deliver the final verdict in the criminal case against the former premier on Aug. 25. Already, all sides of the political divide have employed a number of tactics in what is seen as an acrimonious political showdown at this critical royal transition.
Should Yingluck be found guilty of negligence over her role in the scheme, she could be imprisoned for up to 10 years. In the period leading up to the ruling, the Justice Ministry already froze some of Yingluck’s bank accounts and confiscated some of her wealth to guarantee payment of a $1 billion fine imposed by the military government over her government’s program.
Yingluck won a landslide victory in the 2011 election, riding on her party’s populist platform inherited from the government of her brother, Thaksin, who had been in power from 2001 to 2006. Thaksin implemented policies designed to empower rural residents of the north and northeast regions. They subsequently served as strong power bases for Thaksin’s party. Yingluck initiated the rice-pledging scheme, which resulted in purchasing rice from farmers at above-market rates, distorting global prices. This proved highly popular among her supporters in the rural provinces.
Two Shinawatra prime ministers have been ultimately overthrown in military coups. The current military regime is determined to prosecute Yingluck to attest that the coup against her was legitimate. For the junta, putting Yingluck on trial is basically putting itself on trial too. Given this, many Thais expect the outcome to go against her.
Why must she be eliminated at this point in time? The political elites are increasingly concerned about their position of power now that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away last October, is no longer on the political scene. Under Bhumibol, their political interests were firmly secured through the monarchy network, which had dominated political life for decades. Without Bhumibol, Thailand has moved into an uncertain phase under the new controversial king, Vajiralongkorn. Those political elites fear that the Shinawatras might exploit political uncertainties to regain power.
Yingluck may have been looked down on as a mere Thaksin puppet. But she earned some political credit while serving as prime minister and became even more popular after she was toppled in the 2014 coup. Being the first female premier helped augment her political status. She came across as a genuine politician, composed and compromising — qualities that separate her from her more assertive brother.
Since the coup, Yingluck has been attacked by her enemies through several court cases. They accused her of corruption in the rice scheme. They are now also investigating possible illegalities in her government’s $60 million compensation fund for the red shirts who were killed in the brutal crackdowns in 2010. A string of cases against Yingluck was meant to terminate her political career once and for all.
But Yingluck has not given it up. She continues to travel extensively within the country to meet her supporters. Everywhere she visits, enthusiastic crowds greet her. This political connection between Yingluck and her supporters could be put to good use should she be imprisoned. It is expected that her diehard fans would be willing to defy the junta by rallying to show their support for her. Yingluck herself openly acknowledged her need for public support, writing on her Facebook page, “I would like to transform your moral support into a power that would make me strong and tolerant.”
Therefore, if the junta decides to get rid of her through legal means, street protests are a possibility and political violence might be inevitable. Imprisoning Yingluck would not be the end of the political game, however. Already her supporters are comparing her with Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had to live under house arrest for 14 years over a 20-year period. Suu Kyi’s incarceration earned her the title of a democratic icon and she became the symbol of struggle against Myanmar’s military rule.
But comparing Yingluck with Suu Kyi is problematic. Yingluck was also criticized for buying loyalty from her supporters through populism during her premiership without seriously addressing critical hurdles in democratization. For example, Yingluck refused to deal with lese majeste cases, which caused a huge impact on human rights. Her government also proposed a blanket amnesty that sparked months of anti-Yingluck demonstrations that led to the coup. This blanket amnesty would have set her brother free from pending charges. It infuriated some quarters of the Red Shirts; they felt the deaths of their comrades would be sacrificed for Thaksin’s freedom.
If the courts choose to let Yingluck go, not only would it call into question the reasoning behind the coup, it could also enrage the Shinawatra enemies in the upper and middle classes. They perceive the Shinawatra family as the prime threat to their political well-being. The junta still needs support from society’s upper echelon to ensure its survival.
Jailing Yingluck, and/or confiscating her assets, would surely change Thailand’s political trajectory. In the short term, locking up its primary opponent may strengthen the junta’s grip on power. In the long term, however, the conflict would be far from over. The case against Yingluck is not merely a case against one of the country’s most popular prime ministers, it also underscores the politicization of the judiciary. Without an independent judicial system, Thailand’s road toward peace and reconciliation will be rocky.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.